Striving for innovation, spending millions, Stamford leaders ignored major problems

Stamford's Sewage Woes, Part I

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Stamford Water Pollution Control Authority
A view of the odor control system (white pipes) at Stamford's sewer treatment plant. Photo:Tim Coffey
Problems at Stamford's sewer treatment plant, Part I
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Problems at Stamford's sewer treatment plant, Part I

Aging infrastructure is taking its toll on Connecticut’s sewer treatment plants. But in Stamford, that problem has been coupled with years of mismanagement that could cost state and local taxpayers dearly, and is creating problems for Stamford Harbor and Long Island Sound.

I’m standing in front of a huge water tank that’s 130 feet in diameter. And I’m with Bill Degnan, supervisor of Stamford’s sewer treatment plant. The plant treats an average of 17 million gallons of water a day in Stamford and Darien.

“This is a primary tank where all of the solids that have a gravity of greater than one will settle to the bottom," he explains.

This tank is one of two clarifiers, and it’s meant to treat sewage. But at the moment, only one is working, and it’s been that way for more than a year. Degnan says, under normal conditions, that’d be just fine.

“Our problem comes in when we get a torrential downpour, and all of a sudden you jump to 40 or 50 million gallons, and this clarifier, the one single clarifier, just can’t handle that," Degnan says.

When the one working tank gets overwhelmed, that means not all the solids in the water get removed. Eventually, when the water is released back into Long Island Sound, it’s full of nitrogen, bacteria, and a lot of other stuff.

"You’ll know it," Degnan says. "The water will turn charcoal brown over here. And you’ll know you’ve got something going on.”

Degnan spends a lot of his time thinking about the next rainstorm. Already, because of issues with this tank and plenty of other equipment in Stamford’s sewer treatment plant, hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater have been released into Long Island Sound without being fully treated in recent years.

“You’ve got to put enough money out there to make sure things work and stay working," says Dennis Greci, who works for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

The DEEP has asked for Stamford to make a variety of fixes to its sewage treatment plant for years now. Last fall, staff members finally got involved after getting frustrated with all the delays.

“Some of this has taken close to a year to repair. And that’s really unacceptable," Greci says.

The tank was finally fixed in December. But now the second one needs to be repaired. And that’s just one of a whole host of other problems plaguing the facility. Take the pumps that finally send the supposedly treated water back in the ocean.

“We found that these pumps are not operating at 100 percent. So we have to replace them," says Ernie Orgera, director of operations for the City of Stamford. "Not only do we  have to replace the pumps themselves, but the electrical system that operates the pumps.”

He adds, “we are looking at some issues where our pipes are beginning to fail. And we want to get these things cleared up as well.”

A lot of what’s happening at the Stamford plant can be chalked up to aging infrastructure. All of the state’s sewer plants are now decades old, and some of them are in desperate need of replacement. In Stamford’s case, though, some of the systems that aren’t working were installed pretty recently. As part of a $105 million upgrade finished in 2006, Stamford put in a brand-new nitrogen removal system, odor control system, and water disinfection system. Now, many people are asking,

“Did they ever really work the way they were intended to?”

They include Louis Casale, a former chairman of the treatment plant’s governing board, known as the WPCA. Back in 2010, his colleagues toured the plant and were told by workers that the odor control systems have never worked since they were installed. The new disinfection system, which uses ultra-violet light, has also not been at 100 percent, as some officials put it.

So what does all this mean for the environment? What’s the deal with the water we’re releasing back into Long Island Sound?

“It’s not good for our wildlife, it’s not good for our plants, and it’s not good for our economy," says Leah Schmalz, "since most of our fishermen and our shellfishermen are relying on Long Island Sound for business.”

Schmalz is legislative director for the advocacy group Save the Sound. In recent years, the state has had to close oyster beds in Stamford for months on end, putting some shellfishermen out of business. That’s because bacteria and nitrogen in untreated sewer water can wreak havoc with the ecosystem in Long Island Sound. Stamford officials insist they’ve installed a state-of-the-art nitrogen removal system. But Schmalz says that can only go so far if the plant keeps releasing, or bypassing, untreated water into the Sound.

"Anytime you have a sewage treatment plant that’s bypassing during bad weather, you’re walking back on that progress that we’ve made with our great nitrogen program," she says.

All of this will cost tens of millions – if not more – to repair. The WPCA oversees a budget of about $20 million, and has historically not had much in reserve for capital improvements or repairs. The state’s Dennis Greci says that the agency doesn’t have nearly enough money to do what’s necessary. And so water rates will have to go up – and eventually, taxes might have to go up as well.

“One form or another, some taxpayers in Connecticut will wind up paying for whatever repairs are needed in Stamford," Greci says.

Coming up tomorrow, we’ll look at a failed attempt to turn sewage waste into energy, a plan that dates back to the administration of mayor Dan Malloy.

This story is the result of a reporting partnership with the Connecticut Mirror. Read more in the Connecticut Mirror at ctmirror.org.